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Music is the ultimate single-sourcing resource

A few years ago, I wrote an article for someone else about how music was used in remixes and mashups, but it never got published. Even so, I was reminded of how music has a lot of reuse due to two events that happened to me over this past weekend.

First, I went to a concert given by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. The pieces that were played were Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Ninth “Choral” Symphony. About an hour before the concert, the maestro/conductor held a little talk about the pieces, giving some history and other notes about the pieces. He mentioned that both pieces were reflections of the times, in that the music reflected the turmoil that was going on in Europe during the early 19th century. But what also struck me–and what I listened for–was the reuse of music to reflect some of the action or feelings of the time. In the 1812 Overture, for example, they played the original Russian version, which begins with a Russian Orthodox chant. Later, you hear the French National Anthem several times repeated over and over to reflect Russian and French forces at odds. Beethoven also used bits of well-known (at the time) country songs that were reflected in each movement.

Second, I started to watch an excellent program on television about the Beatles. It was on very late, and my husband and I–who are big Beatles fans–got drawn in, but had to turn it off as we needed to get to sleep. But when we did see was fascinating, and it put an interesting spin on their music. The episode was concentrating on how revolutionary the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was. It was the first time any musicians purposely made a studio album that wasn’t meant to be played for touring. This allowed the Beatles a lot of freedom to experiment with sounds that were either repurposes or found a new place. Sometimes it was the instrumentation that was new; sometimes it was the hybridization of two or more different styles. The one piece that they broke apart that captured my attention was “Penny Lane”. “Penny Lane” is about observations around the area where Paul McCartney and John Lennon grew up. Musically, it captured the old vaudeville sound yet at the same time had a pop/rock sound to it, with overtones of baroque as well. The final track included 4 separate tracks of piano, and a host of other instruments like a special piccolo trumpet (I think that’s what it was called, but correct me if I’m wrong), which wasn’t an instrument used often in modern pop music! Another example, although not part of the album but part of the recording period, is “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Did you ever think that the vocal track sounded a little weird, even though it worked? That’s because the main music background track was made on one day at one speed, and the voice was recorded at a different speed on a different day. John Lennon wanted to use both tracks, but they didn’t synchronize well. Because the technology wasn’t there electronically like it is now, sound engineers had to figure out how to change the variable speed on both recordings so that they could get them to synch. That sort of thing didn’t exist until then! Fascinating stuff.

So what does this have to do with content strategy? Everything. Here’s why.

A big part of content strategy is knowing what to keep and what not to keep. Content strategists are always promoting reuse of content to be used in new ways. By mixing and matching content appropriately, you can get a hybrid that is something new and unique to itself. Nowadays, copyright laws can get in the ways, but if they are heeded appropriately, something new and wonderful can be produced. The music world really started to notice when rap and hip-hop started sampling and reusing music, a practice that’s still used today for new music, remixes, and mashups.

What do you think? Did musicians have this figured out well before writers by almost 200 years? Include your comments below.

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Recap of the Adobe Day “Coachella” – Tech Comm Rock Stars abound!

KSM ROTHBURY packing up 5Adobe Day at the 2013 STC Summit was really great. It took me a while to digest all my own notes and relive the moments promoting the rock stars of tech comm. But like all good music festivals, the “Coachella” of tech comm had to end, but with great memories of fantastic information that will stay with me for a long time. Hopefully you enjoyed this “magical mystery tour” as well!

There were several people from Adobe that were truly instrumental in making this event a success, but I have to “give it up” for the two Masters of Ceremony of the event, Saibal Bhatacharjee and Maxwell Hoffmann.

Saibal
Saibal Bhattacharjee

MaxwellHoffmann
Maxwell Hoffmann

So many people know them from the Adobe TCS webinars, blogs, and other social media outlets. I know they’ve been two of my greatest supporters, so I want to thank them for inviting me to the event, and as always, making me feel welcome both during Adobe Day, as well as during the STC Summit.

If you missed my series for this Adobe Day event, here’s a recap, so you can relive the day yourself:

 macca

Maybe I’m Amazed I met this Tech Comm legend…

 Jagged+Little+Pill

How does that jagged little pill of content strategy go down?

 Peter-Fonda-and-Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-Rider

Get your motor runnin’…Head out on the [mobile] highway…

 Coldplay2

XML Metrics are the Coldplay of the Tech Comm World

 coachella

If Tech Comm had its own Coachella, how would it be done?

I hope you’ve enjoyed all the articles. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to comment below!

The next time there is an Adobe Day near you, or if you have the opportunity to go to one, I strongly encourage you to go! I’ve now been to two of them, and both were different.  It’s amazing to see how perspectives change on the “hot” issues of tech comm in a mere few months! I was glad to hear from leading experts on the pressing topics of the day. And I have to say, I’ve learned so much from both visits. I can honestly say, as well, that both provided information that were applicable to my job, even as a new technical communicator.  Keeping up with current trends in technical communication is important, because technology is changing fast, and technical communicators need to keep up with not only the technology itself, but the needs that new technology presents. Adobe does a nice job of bringing the best thought leadership from around the globe to talk about these issues  for free. How can you pass that up?

Thanks again, Adobe, for an amazing opportunity to attend this free event!

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Maybe I’m Amazed I met this Tech Comm legend…

macca“Excuse me, Dr. Corfield, I’m tweeting this event for Adobe today. Would you happen to have a Twitter handle?”

With the apology that he hadn’t one, but that he did have a Facebook page, I had started a too-short yet lovely pre-event chat with Dr. Charles Corfield, the keynote speaker for the 2013 STC Summit’s Adobe Day. In my mind, being the inventor of Adobe Framemaker would easily qualify the tech comm pioneer for the Tech Comm Hall of Fame (if there was such a thing). For me, talking to Dr. Corfield was like talking to the Paul McCartney of tech comm (and that’s super high praise coming from a Macca fan like me!). Just as McCartney is unequivocally deemed as one of the early pioneers who revolutionized how we listen to rock music today, Corfield helped to revolutionize tech comm with his creation of Framemaker, and in the process, created what we know as a software standard for technical communication that still holds up today. I loved listening to Dr. Corfield’s soft-spoken, British accent as he chatted with me briefly about social media and about some of the things he was going to be talking about in his presentation. I was truly having a fangirl moment, and hopefully I kept my cool during the conversation. Awesome!

CharlesCorfield
Dr. Charles Corfield
The “Father” of Framemaker

Dr. Corfield started his talk by presenting us with a history of how Framemaker came about. He explained that before Framemaker, computing was still fairly archaic, but workstation computers were starting to become more powerful. As a graduate student at Columbia, he was looking to create software that could take things a step beyond word processing, namely make software that could also create unified pagination and page layouts. Framemaker allowed page layouts and paginatable text to work in a symmetrical flow. The software targeted long documents and other paper output done by humans.

Dr. Corfield pointed out that the first content management problems started to occur as a result, and those issues included the need for internal references, such as footnotes, indexes, cross references,  and markers. The power of Framemaker’s ability to create indices to update long documentation was–and still is–more powerful than Microsoft Word even today. He also added the ability to refer to external factors like external references and hypertext.

Framemaker created the ability to manage variants of a single document, leading to what we now think of as single source publishing. Variants would be such objects as variables, conditional text, frozen pagination and change-pages. This yielded a new dilemma. As Corfield posed it, do you send out fully changed documentation or only the pages that were changed, especially with super large documents? The problem would be that with big documents, people would say, “Well, what changed?” Corfield pointed out the Boeing 777 project in 1990s needed IMMENSE documentation, so they needed to use retrievable databases. The Boeing 777 project solution was to use SGML (the predecessor of HTML and XML). This project made it the first “web” delivery of documentation. The Boeing 777 project used Framemaker with SGML, using HTML, XML, DITA as well as “structure.” Framemaker provided a server-based generation of documentation.

Shifting his talk a bit, Dr. Corfield started to talk about Framemaker’s impact today.  He pointed out that the original retina display was actually paper! Sophisticated layouts had to be used to maximize the user-experience. The computer came along later to expand on that concept. Displays started out with 72 dpi (dots per inch) displays, which led to crude layouts. Now, retina display is available at 300 dpi, but we need to re-learn what we did on paper yet also include dynamic content from high resolution video and images.  Corfield pointed out that there has been a proliferation of platforms. We have desktop, laptops, smartphones, and tablets that use different platforms such as Unix, DOS, and MacOS (for PC and Mac products respectively) that need different outputs. Technical writing, therefore, is directly impacted by all the different displays and platforms in relation to  document authoring. It is a requirement to produce structure and rich layouts for the output. Documentation needs to be able to support dynamic content (video, animation, etc.) and it needs to manage content for consumption on multiple platforms. The good news is that Framemaker can do all that! While there are other tools out there that can also deliver different kinds of output, many still struggle to manage and deliver to these needs the same way that Framemaker can now. Dr. Corfield is not part of Adobe anymore, nor is he part of today’s Framemaker product, but he seems happy with where the product has gone since he left it in Adobe’s hands.

(I should note, that while this was a talk sponsored by Adobe, this really wasn’t intended to be a big info-mercial for Framemaker, but rather something that puts the concept of tech comm software into perspective, and it happens to be the product of the sponsor.)

So, where does this tech comm legend think technology is going next? Corfield thinks that going forward, voice is going to have the biggest impact. He felt that screen real estate is full, and that much of the visual is about adding a new widget, then removing a widget. Voice, he continued, eliminates how keyboard shortcuts are remembered. How many keyboard shortcuts does the average user know? Touch screens are a slow way to perform data entry. The impact of voice will be the ability to use visual tips, and have voice act as a virtual keyboard. Voice will be impacting product documentation, allowing it to understand how existing workflows can be modified. Corfield’s prediction is that Framemaker, along with other software out on the market, will “assimilate” voice, just like everything else.

Since leaving Framemaker, Corfield has been working with a product called SayIt, using voice as part of workflow optimization, and emphasized that voice truly is the next big thing (you heard it here, folks!). When asked about the use of voice technology in practical office use, Corfield responded that push-to-talk technology helps prevent cross-talk in an office environment. He also pointed out that with voice, there are no ergonomic issues as there are with carpel tunnel syndrome using a mouse and keyboard. If anything, voice will be more helpful!

On that note, the presentation was over. The long and winding road had ended, but has lead to new doors to be opened. 😉

I really enjoyed listening to the history and the thought process behind Framemaker that Dr. Corfield presented. Everything he mentioned made total sense, and it’s to his credit that he had the foresight to think about the next steps in word processing to create a useful tool like Framemaker to help technical writers meet the needs of documentation in the digital age.

There is a certain aura around creative, imaginative and smart people who make huge differences in our lives, whether it’s in music like McCartney, or tech comm software like Corfield. You can’t help but be awed in their presence, and yet understand that they are generally humble people.  When you have a chance to meet an individual like that, you want the opportunity to capture the moment–like have a picture of yourself and that person to prove that it happened. I was much too shy to ask Dr. Corfield for a photo with me to be honest. I felt awkward asking, so I didn’t. Heck, I felt awkward asking about his potential Twitter name! Even so, I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak.  He’s got my vote as a candidate for the Tech Comm Hall of Fame someday.

(And, Dr. Corfield, if you do ever read this, please feel free to correct anything written here or add any clarification or other commentary below!)